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Dear Penny: Am I responsible for my estranged husband’s debt?

A legal separation stops you from sharing responsibility for new debt your husband takes out in his name, though physical estrangement doesn’t automatically do so.
 
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Getty Images [ Getty Images ]
Published Dec. 1, 2023

Dear Penny,

My husband and I have been separated for many years. He made many bad financial decisions after we separated. Will his debt be my responsibility if he dies before me?

— Til Debt Do Us Part

Dana Miranda is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® and contributor to The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to AskPenny@thepennyhoarder.com.
Dana Miranda is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® and contributor to The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to AskPenny@thepennyhoarder.com. [ The Penny Hoarder ]

Dear Til,

Whether you’re responsible for your husband’s debt (now or after he dies) depends on where you live, whose name is on the account, and whether you’re legally separated or simply estranged.

A minority of states in the U.S. follow a principle called community property, which means you share equal responsibility for all property and debt either spouse acquires while you’re married and living in that state (which includes Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin).

In this case, a legal separation stops you from sharing responsibility for new debt your husband takes out in his name, though physical estrangement doesn’t automatically do so.

If you live in any of the 41 other states, your property and debts fall under common law, which means you and your spouse own property and debt separately — i.e. you are not and have never been responsible for debt in his name.

However, any debt you took out jointly with your husband is equally your responsibility regardless of your location or marital status. If you’re a borrower on a mortgage, co-signer on a loan or primary account holder on a credit card, that debt is your responsibility as long as your name is on the account.

If your name is on any credit cards he’s been using, you might be responsible for repayment. This doesn’t apply if you’re only an authorized user on a credit card in his name; regardless of who made the charges, the credit card company only holds the main cardholder responsible for that debt. If he’s an authorized user on any of your cards, you can contact your credit card company to have him removed. In the meantime, you’re solely responsible for any debt he’s incurred on your cards.

It’s unlikely you’ll be surprised by a debt you owe after your husband dies. Any debt you’d be responsible for repaying, in that case, is one you’re already responsible for now, and it would be impacting your current credit score.

Request a free copy of your credit report through AnnualCreditReport.com, a federally authorized site, to see which accounts are in your name. Then take steps to disentangle yourself from those responsibilities: Remove your husband as an authorized user on your cards, work with him (if possible) to refinance shared loans to split the debt fairly, and talk to a lawyer to learn your options for debt he’s accrued in your name since the separation.

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Dana Miranda is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® and contributor to The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to AskPenny@thepennyhoarder.com.